Boston universities merge disciplines to resolve global refugee crisis

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

By Anna Stjernquist
BU News Service

BOSTON – As the number of refugees continue to grow across the globe, students and their professors across Greater Boston are finding new ways to support those displaced by war, natural disasters and political and economic turmoil.

“A huge opportunity that we’ve had so far is that students from all fields want to help and get involved,” said Charles Simpson, program administrator of the Tufts Refugees in Town (RIT) project, which monitors how relocated refugees adjust.

The Tufts RIT program is one of many new initiatives in Boston that have begun rethinking education initiatives to meet the ever complex challenges of migration across borders.

In the Mideast for example, refugees get MIT training for certificates in computer and data science. Meanwhile, Boston University researchers are developing technologies to ensure the safety of medicines for refugee camps in developing and war-torn countries. 

And they are timely. In 2019, the UN Refugee Agency recorded the highest number of refugees worldwide, with 70.8 million people displaced by conflict, war or persecution – a growth of 2.5 million people compared to 2018. 

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration recently announced it would limit the number of refugees allowed into the country to 18,000 by the end of 2020, down from a previous refugee ceiling of 85,000 in 2016 and 30,000 in 2019.

Facing a crisis that requires a wide range of skill-sets, universities’ growing involvement in the refugee crisis often brings together scholars from different disciplines.

The Tufts RIT program, part of the Feinstein International Center, was initiated by Karen Jacobsen in September 2017, to understand integration from the viewpoint of refugees and communities, and how cities could counteract a recent surge of nationalistic and populist sentiment in western countries.

The project began as the immigration debate was heating up in the U.S and across Europe, with some communities welcoming refugees while others sought tighter border controls, Simpson explained. 

A unique part of the RIT program is the decision to have refugees conduct research into the social and political dynamics of their new communities.

The approach bypasses traditional methods that use international researchers who often don’t know the local language or context, causing the data to be skewed or problematic as a result, Simpson noted.

Case studies are carried out in re-settlement countries such as the U.S., but also transit countries, including Mexico and Greece, and first asylum countries such as South Africa, Lebanon and Turkey.

RIT shares its findings with policymakers and local leadership through workshops, conferences and town visits.

Simpson said findings will be put together in a conference that pairs researchers with practitioners from their area. 

“An example would be a Jordanian woman working on social resilience together with a researcher from Amman,” he said.

But this new activism might require loosening academic borders between departments.  

“The engineer can’t be effective without understanding refugee tradition and culture and international law,” said Carrie Preston, director of the Kilachand Honors College at Boston University. “You simply need interdisciplinary collaboration to solve the problem.”

Preston has joined with Muhammad Zaman, a Boston University professor of biomedical engineering, to redesign a sophomore course on global challenges to focus on refugee health and well-being.

Along with colleagues from the American University of Beirut and Makerere University in Uganda, they launched the interdisciplinary program for Humanitarian Engineering and Refugee Studies (pHERS), which allows students – no matter their major – to travel to Uganda or Lebanon where they work on local development projects in collaboration with host universities. 

Zaman’s lab at BU has shifted part of its focus from cancer to global health research, developing tools to improve health systems and access to quality care in low income countries.

In 2012, Zaman began developing portable devices that could test active ingredients in medicines to see if the medicines are falsified or substandard, in only 15 minutes.

Zaman said involving STEM subjects is crucial in global crisis.

“We need to come up with technology that improves access to high-quality medicine at all points, for all people,” he said.

Beyond providing immediate solutions to save lives and improve living conditions among refugees, Zaman sees farther-reaching opportunities. If addressed appropriately, the movement of refugees worldwide could help build stronger communities and boost economies, he said. 

And new initiatives are in high demand. Robert Fadel, one of the founding members of MIT ReACT, which makes education accessible to refugees worldwide, said its first program received 1,000 applications from over 40 countries when it first launched in January 2018.

In June 2018, the MIT ReACT hub partnered with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab to offer a new track in the MITx MicroMasters Program in Data, Economics and Development Policy. It sponsors a select group of refugees’ access to online course material, an internship in the field and in-person workshops.

Fadel said that part of the challenge in refugee education is academic institutions’ resistance to new teaching practices. 

“Inside disciplines, there might be radical thinking of breakthrough but universities typically do not radically lead it,” he said. 

Fadel said traditional education models of physical classrooms and semester systems must change to account for the struggle refugees face to catch up after time spent out of education systems. 

“What we increasingly acknowledge now in the United States in the way that we approach education for refugees is that it’s just not practical or cost-effective,” he said. 

But Fadel sees promising ideas on the rise, including the use of online, distance-learning programs. 

“There are universities, and what I call pathway institutions, that are seeking to redesign and implement different ways to educate people depending on where they are in their lives, both geographically and what they have going on,” he said.

Pathway programs generally do not offer a degree, but provide skills and knowledge needed to enter either a degree program or the labor market. 

Bridging an understanding between disciplines is also key to avoid superficial responses from STEM disciplines, Simpson said.

“We need an appreciation that a lot of these problems are not resolvable through technological fixes alone,” he said. “We need to recognize underlying social problems aren’t just an easy thing to remedy with an app, or some innovation without accompanying social interventions.” 

Preston believes it will also require a cultural transformation.

“We need to think of ourselves as global citizens and human beings, entitled to human rights for the virtue of being human, not members of a certain state.”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.